MasterChef 4 Recap: Auditions #3

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef or Fox, and they would probably prefer you don’t read it.  The opinions in this blog are only that…opinions.  While I was a contestant on MasterChef season 2, I have no inside knowledge of how it is produced.)

Now it’s time for the third and final round of signature dish challenges, and since we’ve only seen a handful of folks, I expected this episode to be crammed full of hopefuls vying for an apron.

And our first is Howard Simpson, a 26yo barback from San Diego and former assistant machine gunner in the US Army who served a year in Afghanistan.  He dedicates his performance to his army buddies who didn’t make it back.  I can’t imagine what it must be like for soldiers to experience battle.  I would love to talk to Howard about how his reality TV experience compared, psychologically, to his warfare experience.  A few psychologists I know have drawn some interesting comparisons and contrasts to the phenomena.  (Did you know there is a whole area of psychology specialty revolving around reality TV?  The show employs multiple psychologists whose primary goals are the mental and emotional health of the contestants…though they likely have “other” responsibilities.  Before being cast on ANY big reality TV show, contestants undergo rigorous psychological inventory so the producers will know what to expect from various contestants in a wide range of scenarios.)

I digress.

Howard is a likeable guy, and SO is his dish: a bourbon peach blackberry cobbler.  Graham is pleasantly surprised to see Howard add panko bread crumbs to his graham cracker crust to make it more crispy, which is absolutely genius.  (I’m gonna steal that one…thanks, Howard!)  Graham is a big yes, but Gordon is “struggling with the amount of bourbon in it.”  Ummmm…is that a possibility?  Really?  “Too much bourbon,” does not compute.  Systems overloading…  Perhaps it wasn’t ENOUGH bourbon, because Gordon gives him a no, leaving it up to Joe.  And Joe wants to take a walk.  ???  Perhaps there was more to the interview that didn’t make it to the final edit…because this walk was unprompted and very bizarre.  However, Joe meets Howard’s grandmother, who is STONE-FACED and doesn’t look like she’s going to take ANY bullroar from Joe.  You go, Grandma!  Joe gives the apron to Howard.  I like Howard.  I like to see a man’s man…soldier…bartender…unafraid to show his emotions.  (You all know how much I love to show my emotions!)

Next up is Jonny Blanchard, a 28yo carpenter from Mass.  Jonny is doing something VERY dangerous…making a wacked-out dish the judges have never even dreamed of: lobster cracker jacks.  Yes…that’s right.  Caramel corn with lobster and coconut.  The priceless look on Gordon and Graham’s faces after they taste it says it all.  It’s genius and it works.  That look can’t be faked, it is totally genuine.  I had that look the first time I was served lobster and vanilla by a 12-year old chef in Austin named Maggie.  Maggie is one of the most extraordinary humans I’ve ever met…outside of excelling in school, she raises money for children’s charities around the globe, constantly experiments with new techniques and ingredients in her home kitchen, and is fondly recognized by all of Austin’s top chefs when she saunters through the door of their restaurants as if she was born in a restaurant kitchen.  Click HERE to read about my eye-opening experience meeting this future-game-changer of the culinary world.

12yo chef Maggie Culley plating a vanilla-infused cold lobster salad

But back to Jonny, he knows his dish is good, and seeing those “light bulb just turned on” looks on Gordon and Graham’s faces must have been exhilarating for him.  To be honest, it sounds like the kind of dish Graham would serve in his namesake restaurant, and the idea that you might inspire a chef like Graham Elliot to new creative heights is just absolutely MASSIVE.  Massive like the joke Graham pulls when Jonny says to him, “You’re much smaller than I thought you would be,” and Graham says, “Yeah, the camera adds about 180 pounds.”  It’s not surprising to us that Jonny gets 3 thumbs up and is the final contestant to win an apron.

But…wait…there are still probably 50 folks we haven’t even seen?!?  Of course, there’s no time to show 100 contestants being judged on their signature dishes.  (Knock, knock, MasterChef…let’s start with 30!  Then we’ve got less lives shattered, less expense and logistics on your end, and the audience can see everyone.)  It’s just heartbreaking for folks to spend 6 months of their life doing NOTHING but the MasterChef audition and filming process, exciting and stressing out their family, potentially losing them a job, causing them to invest no small amount of money in the effort to portray themselves as a good candidate (and travel to the audition site, and travel to the medical and psychological evaluation site, etc.), to not even appear in the final product.

Case in point: Jenn Thomas.  I met Jenn on the set of Rachael Ray’s “Hey Can You Cook” in 2007.  We were 2 of 5 contestants, all very naive about the “realness” of reality TV, chauffeured in a stretch limo to the chef’s table at The View on Times Square, where we sat down to dinner with Rachael Ray…all very bewildered, confused, and feeling like rockstars.  Jenn beat the pants off us all and took the title.  America fell in love with her and her story.  How she had overcome an eating disorder by changing her relationship with food through cooking.  How she loves to help busy families learn to cook delicious, healthy, inexpensive meals quickly and easily at home, rather than resorting to fast food.  She has become a well known food personality in the Ohio scene, and is buddies with the likes of Michael Symon.  And this year, when she was going through a rough patch in her life, I suggested that she audition for MasterChef.  I knew she would get cast.  She’s a perfect MasterChef candidate.  Attractive, great story, bubbly personality…and she can cook.

She got cast.  She even got an apron!  But her presence on the show extended to a half second shot of her with her game-face on before the lamb challenge in the last half of this episode.

And she’s certainly not the only one.  I’ve been contacted by someone with an INCREDIBLY unique story, who was invited to appear on MasterChef as a contestant, rather than auditioning.  Her story will appear in a subsequent blog, because she has a powerful message to America about food that I feel is critically important to share.  But, after being courted to appear on the show completely outside the audition process, and going to great and risky lengths to do so, we never caught a single glimpse of her.  (Actually, she might have appeared in a commercial, now that I think of it.)  So look forward to that blog very soon…you’ll be KEENLY interested in it.  (Subscribe to my blog now on the upper right corner of your screen to make sure you don’t miss it!)

All this is to say that many, many lives were turned upside down in the 6-month process of casting and filming the 100-odd minutes that just flashed before our eyes.  And we didn’t even see half of those folks.  So bear the gravity of this in mind when you watch future episodes of MasterChef.  And check out my blog that further explores this phenomenon HERE.

Now it’s time to narrow the crowd, and normally that happens in its own 2-part episode that begins with a knife skills challenge, and completes with a cooking challenge.  But the last 2 seasons have been different, with MasterChef doing a very odd mass-elimination based on a single cooking challenge with little or no tasting.

The feature protein in this challenge is lamb, and we see Gordon picking up a little, bleating lamb, which instantly wins the hearts of us all.  I grew up raising sheep.  (And it follows naturally that I grew up eating lamb.)  This protein is still considered a rare indulgence in the US due to its expense and relative rarity, but in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and throughout South America, Africa, and the Middle East, lamb is like chicken.  An everyday meat.  Lamb has a very distinctive flavor, and it’s one of my favorite meats to work with.

The warehouse door opens, and an OCEAN of sheep floods the studio, stepping and pooping on the contestants’ feet, and bewildering most of them.  (I would have turned into a laughing, gleeful 6 year old had I been there, and hugged most of the bleaters.)  I’m sure many of the contestants were instantly terrified, wondering if they would have to do the butchering.  (Remember darling Suzy Singh on season 2 saying, “I hope we get to butcher a chicken on national television!”)  That won’t ever happen on a major TV show in this country, due to our disturbing distance from the food chain, which makes me a little sad.  But the contestants don’t have to worry…the slaughtering and breaking down has already been done for them, and virtually EVERY part of the lamb is available for their use in the pantry.  That is truly a dream!  They have an hour to produce a “stunning” lamb dish, and as quickly as they are running to the pantry, knocking each other to the ground, they are excited.

There are 2 comparatively popular cuts of lamb in the US: leg of lamb, and bone-in lamb chops or loin rack.  So that’s what I expect most people to fall back on, and many do.  Personally, I would sit back for a minute or two and watch what everyone else was grabbing, and then grab what NOBODY grabbed…like the lamb heads!  (Lamb tongue carpaccio, anyone?  How about braised lamb tongue tacos?)  A cut becoming more popular in modern restaurants in the US now is lamb breast.  Tony Scruggs smoked some lamb breasts for me last time I visited him, and they were divine!

Lots of folks are using sweetbreads in their preparations.  Another increasingly-popular organ meat, sweetbreads are the thymus gland…an organ that is involved in the immune system.  While veal sweetbreads are far and away the most popular in US, lamb sweetbreads are stronger in flavor and delicious…IF prepared properly.  If not, they are mushy and slimy and nearly inedible.  The best way to prep sweetbreads involves pressing them for an extended period of time to remove excess moisture, which the contestants don’t have time to do.

45 minutes into the hour-long competition, they send Joe around to start taking aprons away from people who they can tell, just by watching, aren’t good enough.  (Which is interesting because, in many past seasons, the judges have commented on how a cook can seem frantic, confused, and scattered during the cooking process, but triumph in the end.  Noteworthy among these is the season 2 finale, when Jennier Behm‘s cooking station looked like a hurricane had blown through it and Gordon remarked at how worried he was that she seemed “all over the place,” but she triumphed over Adrien Nieto, whose tempered, methodical, calm, professional cooking methods were being fawned over by the judges.)  This whole challenge is just a way to quickly ditch the contestants they don’t want in the core group, regardless of their skill.

Once time is called, the contestants are divided into 3 groups.  One group is mass-eliminated.  (My friend Jenn was among that group.)  No tasting.  No real evaluation at all besides a random walk-by from the judges every now and then.  They’ll try to convince you that the judges can tell, just by watching a contestant for a few seconds, whether or not they can cook.  And that may hold some merit.  But for a contestant struggling with a foreign protein, or who has just had an unexpected glitch…(their station mate is hogging the sink so they can’t get water, for example)…a momentary hiccup can be very deceiving about their overall skill level.

One group is passed directly on to the finalist group, also without tasting or any real evaluation.  The remaining 8 are forced to be “randomly” paired with another contestant, one of whom will be eliminated, and one of whom will pass on.  Is this luck of the draw?  Or have the judges carefully selected these 8 from the 30-odd apron holders, conspired about how to pair them up based on their dishes, and that’s how this transpired?  This is an incredibly odd choice by the producers, and when they made it last year, I almost quit watching.  It’s the single most transparent moment when we realize that the top contestants have ALREADY been picked, probably before the cooking even began, and they just need to get rid of the rest.  At least with the knife skills challenge, there’s a facade of skill.  But this…I hope they get rid of this next year.  It just angers the audience that these contestants are thrown out with barely no consideration, and makes the show look really, really fake.  I was expecting it this year because they did it last year, but it really left a bad taste in my mouth, and according to your comments last year and this year, you don’t like it either.  There’s a simple solution, MasterChef: cast 30 rather than 100, and whoever gets an apron is a finalist.  (Heck, film the REAL auditions so you can show the folks who cook with crickets and breast milk, and give us a few glimpses of that, like American Idol does.  But there’s NO REASON to cast a HUNDRED people, and do so much destructive damage to people’s lives, and then don’t even show them on TV!)  With only 30 hopefuls, the audience gets to see everyone, the contestants’ personal sacrifices are justified because they all get airtime, and the audience stops suspecting the show is faked because of these utterly bizarre, seemingly-arbitrary mass eliminations.  VERY SIMPLE.

First pair is Malcom and Seymira.  Malcom has lamb 3 ways: sausage with mustard, a grilled chop, and a lamb loin salad.  His plating is great.  Seymira has prepared Cotelettes d’Agneau (the French term for lamb chops) with chermoula, a flavorful north African sauce made with preserved lemons, along with “Casablanca couscous.”  Man, it looks and sounds amazing!  The judges love her sauce and the cook on the lamb, but says the couscous is under-seasoned.  So Malcom gets through.  (Check our Seymira’s cool YouTube cooking channel A Ma Mode Cuisine!  I really like her, she loves bold flavor.)

Next pair is Jonny and Brian.  Jonny’s got lamb rangoon (lamb in wonton wrappers), tzaziki coleslaw (mint, yogurt, cucumber sauce), red bell pepper garlic oil, and what sounded like juniper oil.  Texas boy Brian has prepared southwest liver and onions with boysenberry sauce, and cactus salad.  Brian immediately wants the judges to know that he believes his dish is better than Jonny’s, and you should just never do that on MasterChef.  Being presumptuous will get you eliminated no matter how great your food is.  (And it’s a great way to get Bastianich’s temper to flare!)    Gordon tells Brian that the plating method for his boysenberry sauce looks like he slaughtered the lamb on the plate, and Brian  responds that it’s the most beautiful dish he has ever plated in his entire life.  Unsurprisingly, they send Brian home, and Jonny is through.

Then we’ve got Nancy and Bri.  Nancy has a lamb chop with roasted red pepper puree, artichokes, and cauliflower mint puree.  Joe says, “There’s too much garlic.”  For an Italian, this statement is almost scandalous.  (For the record, there is no such thing as too much garlic.  I rarely use LESS than an entire bulb of garlic in any sauce or dish, and I’ve never once heard that statement uttered.)  Also, they say her puree is too grainy…always a challenge with cauliflower.  You have to puree it with a stabilizer, like cream, and leave it in the food processor forever to get it smooth.  Bri, a vegetarian, was in for a challenge, as she has never cooked with lamb before…and probably very rarely with other red meats that are similar.  She has lamb 4 ways and is hoping that 1 of them will be good enough to get her through.  The judges agree, and send Nancy home.  I haven’t really talked about Bri yet, but I adore her.  I was a theatre nerd, too.  She’s my kinda people.

Last but not least, we’ve got Luca and Beth.  Luca has a roulade (meat that has been flattened, stuffed, rolled up, and roasted) of lamb loin stuffed with sweetbreads, with endive and goat cheese.  Sounds incredible.  But Gordon says it’s a dangerous choice (?!?) and they criticize him for NOT playing safe.  (If he had made pasta, they’d have criticized him for playing safe.  That’s just the way it goes on MasterChef.  Early on, the judges criticized me for trying to make the same kind of “fancy bistro” food my competitors were making, rather than rely on my traditional and international “peasant cooking” roots.  They told me to cook what I know.  After the judges had seen me do a lot of baking in challenges, when I started baking a cornbread for the pork challenge, Gordon rolled his eyes and say, “Why are you baking again?” and I said, “Am I not supposed to play to my strengths now?  Earlier, you told me to.”)  Beth has what looks to be the most unique and stunning dish of any we saw: lamb loin roasted in hay (hay smoking or roasting gives a striking, sweet, grassy flavor to meat and is one of the single best ways of preparing lamb), buttermilk fried sweetbreads, apricot chutney, mint, and celeriac rutabaga puree.  This dish really stunned me (maybe more than ANY dish I’ve seen on ANY MasterChef episode), and Beth seems like an extraordinary person.  I most definitely want to meet her.

The judges pass Beth through, leaving Luca trembling before them.  His eyes can’t mask his emotion, and we’re all feeling that sick pit-of-the-stomach feeling for him, about to be eliminated this early on, after not making it last year.  (In this exact same spot, in the chicken challenge in season 2, I stood there before the judges, having offered up a truly horrible plate of food that should have gotten me eliminated.  I plated biscuits that were made with NO leavening because there wasn’t any in the pantry!)  But it’s another MasterChef tease, and Luca is passed through, and I know EXACTLY how he feels, saying he had a heart attack, because after lots of hemming and hawing, the judges passed me through, as well, and I could barely stand.  (Actually, if I recall correctly, I downright collapsed on the floor of the warehouse.)

So we’ve got top 19 this year!  And next episode, these folks will enter the real MasterChef kitchen for the first time.

I HOPE to get that blog posted before the episodes air tonight, so I’ll be all caught up.  But as you can tell, I’m kinda verbose, and it takes me a bit to bang one of these out.  See you soon!

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